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Dystonia and childhood trauma

Updated: Apr 22

Childhood trauma, developmental trauma, complex PTSD (C-PTSD), and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are different ways to describe the kinds of psychological injuries that can prevent our nervous systems from staying regulated consistently, and can contribute to the development of dystonia.

If you follow the Hope for Dystonia knowledge base, you already know that dystonia is a complex, emergent phenomenon: it is born out of the interaction of multiple causal co-factors, which lead the body and psyche to organize themselves according to a new pattern, of which dystonia is but the most evident manifestation. 

Physical injuries or anatomical imbalances such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) misalignment are just one of such possible causal co-factors. Psychological trauma plays a fundamental role as well. Such trauma can be one distinct event, such as a major loss, that triggers the onset of symptoms. Quite often, individuals who are affected by dystonia also have a history of developmental trauma, i.e. prolonged psychological distress to which they are exposed during their childhood and adolescence. 

Many people who suffered developmental trauma are not aware of it, and think they had a “normal childhood” with “great parents”. While it is true that most of our parents did their very best, this is no guarantee that our psychological needs were met. When these needs are not met, our nervous systems cannot develop in a way that allows them to remain resilient in the face of life’s challenges. 

Much of the development of our nervous system and our psyche happens as a result of our interactions with our primary caretakers as we grow up. The process of bonding with these key figures in our lives is called attachment

If we experience good enough parenting, we are able to develop a secure pattern of attachment. More often than not, our nervous system is able to stay within its window of tolerance, the space that allows it to have a natural breathing rhythm moving back and forth between sympathetic activation and parasympathetic relaxation. We are able to develop a healthy sense of self, including self-worth and self-esteem, and can feel our physical and emotional boundaries. We can generally be comfortable in our bodies. The majority of the population broadly falls into this category. 

On the other hand, a minority of us do not experience good enough parenting, and develop insecure patterns of attachment: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. Without getting into the details of each one of these patterns, it is important to understand the following: when we develop an insecure attachment pattern as children, we have to constantly move outside of our window of tolerance in order to meet our fundamental needs around psychological development. These patterns of nervous system dysregulation end up becoming chronic, making us more vulnerable to neurological disorders as adults.

To make this more tangible, let’s look at an example of how attachment disturbances can contribute to dystonia and how we can get better. The protagonist of our story is Nathan. 

Nathan grew up with a narcissistic mother, and a father who enabled her. Nathan’s mom was unable to attune to her son in a way that would allow him to develop his independent sense of self. Instead, he found himself being in a constant state of hypervigilance, wondering how his mother’s mood would shift and how he could meet her needs in order to maintain domestic peace and feel a modicum of safety. As a result, Nathan never learned to look within and recognize what his needs are, or to recognize that those needs are important.

As an adult, Nathan suffered from low self-esteem. Because of his people-pleasing tendencies, he ended up in a series of abusive relationships, and kept painting himself into very tight corners in his professional life. He lived in a constant state of tension, with his nervous system working hard to make sure he was liked by everyone so he could feel safe. At the end of the day, he rarely did. 

When Nathan was let go from his job of many years, the physical and psychological tension became unbearable. His habit of grinding his teeth became hard to escape, the clicking in his TMJ got louder, and he noticed that the right side of his neck was becoming stiffer and stiffer, making it hard to keep his head aligned. After a long search for the right medical practitioner, Nathan was diagnosed with dystonia. 

What caused Nathan’s dystonia? Was it the job loss, his TMJ disorder, or the chronic dysregulation of his nervous system stemming from his developmental trauma? The answer, of course, is all of the above. 

In order to get better, Nathan embarks on the Eight Steps of the Hope for Dystonia Recovery Roadmap. He begins his journey with a few sessions meant to help him feel from within which cranial nerves he is overusing and which ones he is ignoring or underusing; he learns to create balance in them and practices helpful exercises. He recognizes that it is difficult to create such balance because he is in a constant state of tension, and learns to regulate his nervous system. 

Once he is able to stay regulated more consistently, Nathan embarks in the process of attachment repair, one of the key steps in the Hope for Dystonia Recovery Roadmap. His inner child experiences the fundamental qualities of attachment that he did not experience properly: safety, soothing, attunement, delight in his essence, and encouragement to be his most authentic and empowered self. This process happens with close spiritual guidance.

Slowly, things begin to shift: Nathan is able to stay within his window of tolerance more and more of the time, and his brain is increasingly able to let go of muscle spasms. A few psilocybin mushroom experiences in legal settings and with medical approval help the process of neuroplasticity. A skilled and humble dentist helps Nathan create an appliance that allows the TMJ to remain aligned, based on Nathan’s own guidance (see “TMJ and dystonia: what you need to know”). 

Nathan has his life back. Beyond that, he is a more empowered, more authentic, more mature version of himself. Rather than spending all of his energy trying to be liked in order to feel safe, Nathan is able to share his gifts with the world. Looking back, he realizes what a gift the dystonia was! 

As you can see, through the Hope for Dystonia Recovery Roadmap, Nathan was able to address one by one all of the causal co-factors that led to his dystonia, allowing his body-mind to reorganize itself in a more functional way. 

Nathan’s story is not fiction; in fact, it very much resembles my story and that of many Hope for Dystonia clients. It could be yours too. If you are ready to get started, book a time to chat


Disclaimer: Hope for Dystonia is a coaching and spiritual mentorship service and not a substitute for medical or psychotherapy services. Federico is not a medical doctor nor a psychotherapist. Hope for Dystonia and the materials on the website are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disorder or disease. Please make your medical decisions with your medical providers and consult them before making any changes. Psilocybin mushrooms are legal only in a few jurisdictions as of 2024; Hope for Dystonia does not encourage or condone the consumption of mushrooms where not legal, without medical clearance and appropriate guidance.

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